The pages of the church minutes and membership have faded over the years, but the names remain clear — if not the details.
You learn when they were born and baptized. But there is no explanation of a certain punishment that shows up next to several of the names of the early congregants at the Withlacoochee Missionary Baptist Church.
In the early 1900s, it seems, there was a fine line between saint and sinner.
Iva Bryant is 88. When she was a little girl, she attended the church just outside Dade City. The elders cracked down on any misbehavior, she recalls, "any time you didn't do the right thing."
At the Cummer Cypress Co. town called Cumpresco, men worked in the sawmills and most everyone attended the Withlacoochee Missionary Baptist Church. As a young teenager, Bryant was baptized in the Withlacoochee River in her white dress as men stood guard against alligators. The rules of the church were strictly enforced. Members were dismissed for even the slightest disorderly conduct.
"They don't do that much the way they used to," Bryant said.
As one of the few survivors of the former company town, Bryant has a special charge. She keeps the original church conference minutes and membership rolls dating as far back as 1892. But her responsibility isn't just to safeguard the names and memories of those faithful ancestors who founded the small church in 1886. She must also keep the faith.
And that hasn't always been easy. Over the past 50 years, the rural congregation has split over doctrinal or operational differences. Several other east Pasco churches formed as offshoots. The congregation also moved several times along River Road to be closer to Dade City, but later returned to the current location near the Green Swamp in the late 1970s.
This congregation's survival is no mere chance.
"This church is here because of the determination of people like granny who didn't want to let it die," said Bryant's grandson, Mark Floyd.
That determination and faith draws Bryant to the old building on Sunday morning with her daughter, Alma Surratt. Grandson Terrell Floyd leads the song service. There are only two dozen worshipers — more people on the prayer list than in the pews. The mood is informal. Pastor John Lennard wears one of the two ties in the house. The other is a visiting newspaper columnist whose jacket and dress slacks stand out among the jeans and plaid shirts.
Some people believe that a bigger church is a better church. Worship for them is often more entertainment than enlightenment. Sunday morning service can resemble a concert experience.
But at Withlacoochee Missionary Baptist, you still hear strains of the same songs of the faith passed down by those men and women 122 years ago: The Old Rugged Cross, Shall We Gather at the River, Blessed Assurance.
These songs stir the soul.
Andrew Skerritt can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602.